Family remember WWII airman's burning plane escape

By Neil Prior
BBC News, Wales

Image caption,
Arthur Pritchard was only a teenager when he was shot down

A former World War II aviator who survived being shot down by the Germans and was helped by the French Resistance afterwards has died.

Arthur Pritchard, who was 86, from Felinheli, Gwynedd, spent most of his life driving JCBs and digging holes or demolishing things.

But he was one of only two survivors when his Lancaster bomber crashed in flames in northern France in 1944.

His funeral was held at St Mary's Church, Felinheli, on Thursday.

Almost 66 years ago to the day, his life became a living nightmare when his Lancaster bomber burst into flames over Nazi-occupied France, after being struck by a combination of anti-aircraft shells and machine gun fire from a Luftwaffe fighter.

On the night of 9/10 June 1944, just days after the beginning of the D-Day landings, the crew of ND764 left RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, for a bombing raid on Etampes, around fifty kilometres outside Paris.

After successfully hitting their target, their plane was crippled by anti-aircraft guns on the ground, making it a sitting target for a German fighter, which raked them with machinegun fire from below.

Of the seven men on board, five perished in the fireball, and one was taken prisoner by the Germans. Only Flight Engineer Arthur Pritchard escaped.

Low altitude

Mr Pritchard's daughter, Carolyn Pritchard, was taken by her father to see the last working Lancaster at RAF Coningsby, and can understand why the death-toll was so high.

"I was shocked at how cramped and inaccessible the conditions were that my father flew in. The mid-upper gunner and rear gunner in particular were stranded in turrets up winding steps."

"He showed me where he lay, as the path-finder, in a well at the front bottom of the plane."

"On a different day he could easily have been stuck in his hole, but this time the plane was struck in the rear, and he was able to escape.

Because of their extremely low altitude, Mr Pritchard's parachute failed to open properly, and he broke his ankle on landing.

But when he recalled the night to Carolyn as a child, she remembers it was always with an undiminished sense of adventure.

"He landed in the middle of a field at about half past one in the morning. He hobbled to the side of the road, and tried to flag down the passing cars.

"They could have been French, Germans, anyone, but as an 18 or 19-year-old lad, he had no idea how much danger he was in!"

"When none of them would stop, he somehow managed to drag himself a mile or so to a village, where there was a bar still open.

"In their RAF emergency packs, they carried some francs, but the only word of French Dad knew was champagne!"

"So he wandered into this bar, with his thick north Wales accent, waving a 100-franc note, and shouting 'Champagne!', while half the bar was full of Germans! Well they didn't half get him out the back quickly!"

But even more frightening than having to bail out of the Lancaster,was his interrogation by the French Resistance cell to whom he was passed.

In the weeks immediately following D-Day, Resistance fighters were coming under particularly close scrutiny, as the Germans' grip on France slipped.

If caught, they could expect certain torture and death. At first they were unsure whether Mr Pritchard was a German spy, sent to infiltrate their group, so he was kept in a hole beneath an outside tap, until they verified his story via radio communications with Britain.

Had they not been able to confirm his identity, he was left in no doubt that the hole was to be filled in, and he would have disappeared for ever.

"They were quite suspicious of him, because they'd never heard an accent like his before. There was only one teenage boy in the village who spoke English, and he couldn't work out where Dad came from!"

"But once they trusted him, they were wonderful! Dad stayed in touch with the family who hid him, pretty much right up until he passed away," Ms Pritchard explained.

Troop formations

Mr Pritchard spent two months under-cover in France, being transferred around safe-houses by following several different cyclists with a certain colour of saddle-bag.

He made notes and drawings of his surroundings, and when the Allies liberated Paris in August 1944, he was able to pass on vital intelligence on German troop formations and armaments.

But according to Ms Pritchard, her father's real upset only started once he was sent back home and learnt what had happened to the rest of his crew.

"Dad was the only Welshman in an Australian flight crew. They called him 'Taffy. They did everything together, ate, slept, fought, drank and danced together.

"When he heard that five of the seven had died in the crash, and that the other survivor had been taken prisoner by the Germans, he was devastated. The question must have kept going around his head, 'Why did I escape and the others died?'"

"You could tell how close they must have been, as Dad stayed in touch with the only living member of the crew, Warrant Officer Bethell, for the rest of his life," she added.

Mr Pritchard is survived by seven children, thirteen grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.